A fortunate deflection off the shin of Jordan Henderson came to Liverpool’s aid to see off Swansea City and set up a mouth-watering top-four showdown with Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday.
Despite being distinctly second-best to a superb Swansea in the opening half at the Liberty stadium, it was Liverpool who got the only goal, when Jordi Amat slid in to clear on the edge of his own box only to see the ball strike Henderson’s right shin, bounce into the ground and loop over goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski. While not pretty, the second-half goal could be vital come the season’s end. For the time being, it takes Liverpool back to within two points of fourth-place Manchester United and within a win on Sunday of moving into the Champions League places for the first time this season.
That would be an extraordinary accomplishment after what was a torrid start to the campaign. This victory made it five Premier League victories in succession for Brendan Rodgers’ side and extended their unbeaten run to 13, dating back to a 3-0 defeat to their fiercest rivals, who now sit within touching distance.
But on few occasions on that run, if at all, have they been tested as severely as by Rodgers’ former side on Monday. It was against United in December that Rodgers devised the change in system with three at the back and a box in midfield, which has proved so instrumental in their revival. But Rodgers’ former captain in south Wales, Garry Monk, appeared to have made maximum use of the 12 days since Swansea’s last outing to devise a shrewd plan to counter Liverpool’s tactics.
With a shift in Swansea’s approach moving Bafetimbi Gomis and Wayne Routledge wide in attack and pushing Gylfi Sigurddsson up through the middle, the home side stopped Liverpool from playing through midfield to leave them one-paced and perplexed. As much as the tactics, though, it was the intensity of the way Swansea went about their play that was so impressive, even more so when considering Swansea’s mid-table position with Premier League safety already secured. It was Swansea, of the two, who were playing like the team with a Champions League place on the line.
The only thing Swansea couldn’t do in the opening 45 minutes was put the ball in the back of the net. There was some profligacy in evidence for the hosts, with Gomis and Sigurdsson not as clinical as they could have been with space in the box, but both were also denied in impressive fashion by Simon Mignolet. The Liverpool goalkeeper got down smartly to stop a fierce low strike from Gomis from creeping into the corner and then flung himself at full stretch to deny a curling effort from Sigurdsson.
Monk will have been keen for the match to continue once it hit the 45-minute mark, while Rodgers will have been desperate for a chance to regroup and have some words with his players. During the interval, Rodgers again displayed his tactical flexibility by switching to a midfield diamond, which in combination with an increase in energy, saw the balance of play completely reversed in Liverpool’s favor. With Fabianski saving well from Philippe Coutinho, though, they couldn’t find a route to goal.
The return of Steven Gerrard helped Liverpool further, but it was to take a slice of fortune for the visitors to get the crucial breakthrough with 22 minutes remaining. There was a touch of class about the buildup, with Sturridge getting a delicate touch to a pass out of the back to send Henderson through. Amat got there first to apparently stave off the danger, only to see his intervention come back off Henderson and end up in the back of the net. Swansea, having given so much in the opening half, had nothing left. Liverpool, particularly when Sturridge hit a post in injury time, had chances to make the score line more decisive. That, though, would have been decidedly harsh on Swansea.